Jane Austen, the writer of Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility (among others) is widely considered ignored in her lifetime–and a bit of a prude. As Devoney Looser explains in The Washington Post, these are just two of the persistent myths surrounding Austen. Let’s see what else most people get wrong about her!
Jane Austen was a secluded, boring homebody
The myth of her sheltered existence originated with her brother Henry’s short biographical notice, published as a preface to the first edition of “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” (1818). Henry describes his late sister as having lived “not by any means a life of event.” Today, it has become a trope.
But things happened to her! For one thing, she had seven siblings. Her father ran a small boarding school for boys out of the family’s home. How quiet a girlhood could that have been? Then she lived for several years in the resort town of Bath, the Regency-era young person’s equivalent of Cancun. She visited London and frequented its rowdy theaters, where vendors sold audience members rotten fruit specifically for the purpose of hurling it at the actors (thus proving that the fun practice of pelting poor performers was still alive and well in the 19th century).
Her family had colorful characters. Her aunt was arrested, tried and acquitted of a shoplifting charge, creating a scandal. Her flirtatious cousin Eliza, whose first husband was guillotined in the French Revolution, afterward married Jane’s biographer-brother, Henry. He became a failed banker whose losses cost his relatives tens of thousands of pounds. He lost some of Jane’s money, too.
Austen’s was a prude
Henry Austen’s biographical notice claims that Jane was “fearful of giving offense to God.” Novelist Charlotte Brontë cemented Henry’s prim and proper vision, complaining in 1850 that “the Passions are perfectly unknown” to the late Austen. (It may be an unfair charge from an author who transforms attempted bigamists into heroes and makes lovers out of violent boors, but I digress.) That opinion persists to this day, with the Guardian speculating that Austen is a model of “sexless greatness” whose own chastity gave us her “wonderful novels.”
However, you’ll find plenty of illicit sex in Austen’s fiction, including seductions, adultery, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and prostitution. “Pride and Prejudice” includes a flirt who runs off with a rake who’s later bribed into marrying her. “Sense and Sensibility” describes a young woman who is seduced, abandoned and pregnant, and whose mother had been an abused wife, a kept mistress and then sunk deeper still. And obviously, any author who could create Mr. Darcy — who “drew the attention of the room” by his “fine, tall person” and “handsome features,” and who’s been interpreted as a tasty dish by almost a century of actors, from Colin Keith-Johnston to Colin Firth — must understand the power of sex appeal.
Austen approved of slavery and colonialism
Was Austen proslavery and an apologist for colonialism, as the cultural critic Edward Said famously argued? These claims often come down to what she leaves unsaid, as it does for Said, who argues that her characters’ pointed silences when colonialism comes up signal the author’s elitist neglect.
Austen certainly benefited from the cultural and economic privileges of her race and class. However, anti-slavery commentary appears in “Emma,” when elegant Jane Fairfax decries the dehumanizing slave trade and governess trade, comparing the sale of human flesh to that of human intellect. It’s also been argued that the title of “Mansfield Park” intentionally echoes the name of Lord Mansfield, the judge whose 1772 ruling said chattel slavery was unsupported by English common law (Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, though slavery in its colonies continued until 1833.)
Also, Austen’s brother Francis expressed abolitionist views. In 1807, he wrote in his journal, “Slavery however much it may be modified is still slavery, and it is much to be regretted that any trace of it should be found to exist in countries dependent on England, or colonized by her subjects.” The Austen family probably shared his opinion.
Austen’s work wasn’t noticed before she died
This myth mistakes anonymous publication for total obscurity and turns moderate popular and critical success into literary disregard. Austen published “Sense and Sensibility” (1811) with the anonymous credit “By a Lady.” She published her next books “by the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility’” and “by the author of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ ” It allowed readers to follow her from one work to the next. Her novels went into multiple editions and attracted positive reviews.
The most famous was “Emma,” published in the prestigious Quarterly Review. The anonymous reviewer, best-selling novelist Sir Walter Scott, claimed that the book’s author was “already known to the public by the two novels announced in her title-page”: “Pride and Prejudice, &c.” He declares that the author of “Emma” creates sketches of “spirit and originality” about common occurrences. “In this class,” he says, “she stands almost alone.”
Scott may not yet have known this admired author’s name, but others got wind of it. By 1815, the Prince Regent, a fan of her novels, knew Austen’s name with sufficient certainty that he invited (read: commanded) her to dedicate her next book to him.
Austen-inspired fan fiction emerged in the 20th century
Works of JAFF (Jane Austen fan fiction) — or Austenesque fiction, as some call it — have exploded in the past decade, and not just ones that involve zombies. From “Spank Me, Mr. Darcy” (2013) to “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” (2009) to “Emma, Mr. Knightley, and Chili-slaw Dogs” (2013), there seems to be an Austen-inspired story to suit every taste.
Many sources claims that Sybil Brinton’s 1913 “Old Friends and New Fancies” was the first work of Austen-inspired fan fiction.
But Austen-inspired fan fiction dates back a century earlier. A piece of real-person fiction, using Austen as a character, appeared in the Lady’s Magazine in 1823. It imagines Austen as a ghost, says she had a nose that expressed her genius and describes what she wore in life. Perhaps this piece of fiction was so long overlooked because critics wrongly believed that Austen was unread in the 1820s.
The notion that Austen was a little-known or unknown author, who first experienced mass popularity and attracted fans in 1870, then recaptured the popular imagination in 1995, just isn’t true. The time is right for the heart-rending, oft-repeated mythical story of Austen’s having died unrecognized, and then going so long without fans, to reach its “finis.”
Read the full post in The Washington Post.